Using Your ATM card in Europe

Things you need to know about traveling with an ATM card

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It used to be that the savvy European traveler loaded up on free Traveler's Checks before getting on the plane, fully expecting to stand in a long bank line to cash a few of them every couple of days. Not anymore. ATM use, once the value leader in money conversion for travelers, has all but decimated the Traveler's Check industry.

The bad news is that the banking folks noticed. Like in a loony cartoon you could imagine huge dollar signs popping into their eyeballs as they read the reports of money flowing out of European ATMS. Fees were quickly added to enrich the coffers. Still, although those fees have made it more expensive to use a credit or debit card to get cash from an ATM in Europe, it's still the least expensive and most convenient way to get local currency these days.

So don't be afraid to use your card to access cash at a European ATM. If you're looking for a card to use in Europe, check out the Currency Conversion fees for popular cards. Then use our ATM Finder  to make sure there's an ATM where you're going (they are numerous these days; I've never had a problem getting money in Europe).

If you're asking for an ATM machine, be aware they're often called cashpoints in the UK or Bankomat in Italy.

ATM tips and strategies

  • Shorten your PIN. If your PIN is longer than four digits, you may need to get a new number. Many foreign machines don't like longer codes or letters in a PIN. You can get letters translated to numbers by asking your bank.
  • Tell 'em You'll be Traveling. This is very important. Before you go, make sure you call the number on the back of your credit or debit card and inform the company of your dates of travel. Otherwise they'll allow you the first transaction and possibly reject others on suspicion that your card is being used by a stranger in a a strange land.
  • Max it out. Making many small withdrawals increases the number of per transaction fees. Get as much as you can and stash it in a safe place.
  • Don't get dependent. If you're nearly out of cash get replenished at the first opportunity-don't wait until you end up in a cute little burg with only 1 malfunctioning ATM. They do run out of money at times.
  • Test it! Make sure your card works. Don't just rip it off its paper backing and stuff it in your money belt on your way to Munich--try it out in an ATM at home first.
  • Know your numbers. Make sure someone at home who's accessible while you're on vacation has your credit card info. I mean someone you trust, of course. Make a copy of your card and take it with you--and keep it in a different place from where you carry your card.
  • Take two, ya never know. Have a different card so that you have a backup. Make it a different bank so you'll have access to more machines.
  • Watch out for weekends. There have been reports that some European banks don't update their databases over the weekend. That means that if you've withdrawn the max on Friday, you may not be able to get more money on that card until Monday morning.
  • Get Chip and Pin. Banks in the US are (finally!) starting to roll out the far more secure chip and pin debit and credit cards, which Europe has been using for years and has the infrastructure in place to make secure transactions with cards that are far more difficult to clone.

Alternatives to the credit or debit card: Prepaid or Stored Value Travel Cards

One option that some people find attractive is the prepaid card. The principle is this: you plan your travel expenses, add a little for unseen expenses, and put that amount into an account accessible by the travel cards you order. You aren't borrowing the bank's money--you're just making your money available through ATMs. A popular card is the Visa TravelMoney Card. A variation of this card is also available through your local AAA.

Advantages of a Stored Value Card:

  • No credit check needed, since you're using your own money.
  • You can get cards for the whole family, and have control over the spending limits of each.
  • Uninterrupted access to your funds if your card is lost or stolen when you take a second back up card with you.

The last word: What currency items I take to Europe

Ok, so you're all set for your attack on European ATMs. You've got a couple cards and a plan. Doncha feel just a little shaky about the whole thing?

I know I do. Sure, folks tell me there's always a functioning ATM in the airport. Why bring any cash at all? And traveler's checks--they're so, well, 90s!

I tend to bring a couple hundred dollars of the first local currency I'll encounter. Sure, in my bleary-eyed, jet-lagged state I could amble over to the ATM while my bags tumble off the conveyor belt and get money. It's just nice to know I can function in a country right off the plane, without any surprises.

(I used to take about 500 dollars worth of traveler's checks I get free of fees from my local AAA as back up. I no longer feel the need to do this.)

So that's it. Enjoy your trip to Europe. And be sure to tell us about it by posting a trip report in our forum.

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